Discrimination in the Workplace — Everything You Need to Know

Photo Credit: AdobeStock/Nichizhenova Elena

By Laura Berlinsky-Schine

READ MORE: Discrimination, Diversity, Harassment, Sexual harassment, Unconscious bias

At least 25 percent of women experience sexual harassment in the workplace according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Other studies report a number as high as 85 percent. Those statistics are especially startling when you consider that many women don’t report or admit that they’ve been sexually harassed out of fear of retaliation or other concerns.

Even as the #MeToo gains traction across the country, women continue to face discrimination in the workplace. Sexual harassment and gender discrimination aren't the only forms of discrimination in the workplace; it can also happen because of age, race, weight, national origin, sexual orientation, marital status—even your name and breast size.

No matter what the form of discrimination is, it can result in many unacceptable and unlawful behaviors. An employer might overlook a certain group of employees when issuing promotions or raises, for instance. The employer might state preferences for a certain group of candidates, such as those in a specific age range or of a specific gender, in the hiring or recruitment process. Or certain employers might make a work environment hostile for someone or multiple people.

The good news is that many anti-discrimination laws exist to protect you and your employment. They also guarantee that your employer must make reasonable accommodations on your behalf.

So what do you do if you’re facing discrimination in the workplace?

Know your rights

The Civil Rights Act. The Violence Against Women Act. Title IX. The Age Discrimination in Employment Act. Title VII. There are numerous anti-discrimination laws in place meant to protect you against workplace discrimination, no matter what the form of discrimination is.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) exists to protect your rights. It enforces federal laws preventing workplace discrimination. There are also many state agencies governing state laws that deal with workplace discrimination. In order for you to sue your employer in a federal court, you must first file a discrimination claim with the EEOC within 180 days of when the incident took place.

The EEOC website offers information and resources to help you understand the federal laws protecting you in the workplace.

Talk to your employer

Before you take your employer to court, however, it’s usually best to try to resolve employment discrimination issues at work, depending on the circumstances and magnitude of the violation. (Of course, if the employer is violating your civil rights, ignoring discrimination laws, or engaging in discrimination in employment on a large scale, you may want to file a claim immediately.)

It’s very likely your employer already has a discrimination and sexual harassment policy in place. The best policies are outlined in clear terms, describe the reasonable accommodations employees can expect, and are readily available to all employees. They will also reiterate that employees should not avoid reporting issues of discrimination out of fear of retaliation, which is unlawful.

Try to follow the steps outlined in your employer’s policy, assuming you are comfortable with them. This may involve approaching your manager, colleague, or whoever has engaged in the unwanted behavior or unfair treatment, to discuss your concerns.

Also be aware that unconscious bias may be at play, meaning your manager or colleague may be discriminating against you without even being aware that he or she is doing it. In some cases, simply approaching the person with your concern will help clear up any issues, now that he or she is more conscious about how the behavior is affecting you. In cases of indirect discrimination, your employer may be surprised as well, though this doesn't make your discrimination claim any less warranted or real.

If you’re uncomfortable approaching the person who has exhibited discriminatory behavior towards you, go to your human resources specialist. If your employer doesn’t have a designated HR specialist, go to the person responsible for handling workplace conduct. Keep records of any instances when someone has made you feel uncomfortable, and deliver your complaint in writing.

If you’re unsatisfied with the resolution or feel that the behavior has continued, it may be time to file a complaint with the EEOC. You also might choose to do this if you’ve faced retaliation because you spoke out—for example, if you were fired or reprimanded after raising the issue. If you choose to take this step, read the rules and laws carefully, and notify your employer that you plan to file the complaint.

Promote a healthy work culture and environment

Taking conscious actions to promote an inclusive work environment can often prevent employment discrimination before the issues arise.

Anti-discrimination and sexual harassment training

Many employers have taken the positive step of instituting mandatory training to combat harassment in the workplace. This kind of program should address all forms discrimination, not just sexual harassment. During the training, a knowledgeable company officer—often an HR specialist who knows the laws—should outline laws governing workplace harassments and the company’s own policies. In order for employees to understand the many types of discrimination that can take place in the workplace, including gender, race, and age discrimination, she should offer numerous examples and scenarios involving specific behaviors that are offensive and could warrant dismissal. She should also describe what employees should do if they’ve been the victim of discrimination and how to file a claim with their employer.

While many employers only require employees to undergo harassment training when they begin working at the company, annual or even more frequent training can go a long way in preventing this kind of behavior.

Develop diversity initiatives

Offering resources for employees to discuss and deal with important issues in the world and the workplace can make workers feel more comfortable in their work communities, as well as help increase diversity at the company. Even if you aren’t an HR specialist, there are steps you can take to contribute to and improve your company culture.

This might involve creating or joining a diversity committee at your workplace as a forum for discussing and developing plans to actively promote diversity in the company. Creating or participating in mentoring programs can help as well, since it gives younger or newer employees a resource for addressing unfair treatment and other problems they encounter. Ultimately, it’s important for all employees to have a safe space to articulate concerns, discuss issues, and work together to combat problems they encounter, as well as strengthen the workplace culture.

Confront stereotypes head on

If you face discrimination personally or witness an incident, confront the perpetrator directly before the situation escalates. Often, simply saying, “I didn’t appreciate your comment” or “That behavior made me uncomfortable” will allow the person who exhibited the behavior to reflect on the incident and may prevent it from happening again. However, if you’re not personally involved in what happened, avoid embarrassing the victim. Try to find a way to discuss it privately before calling him or her out publicly.

Sometimes, victims of workplace harassment don’t even know they’re being harassed, which is one reason why it’s so underreported. Be aware that even if a colleague or manager makes the same discriminatory comments about everyone or engages in similar hostile behavior with multiple employees, it still qualifies. Just because no one else is calling him or her out doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be the one to do it first. As the Harvey Weinstein case showed us, if one person takes the brave first step, others will follow suit.

Project confidence

Discrimination is not your fault. Still, if you project confidence, others will be more likely to take you seriously and less likely to make unfair and unwarranted assumptions about you. It may be difficult to project confidence if you don’t feel confident, but often simply pretending can often lead to the real thing.

Consult resources

Many employers have resources about discrimination and harassment available. Read your company handbook and ask your employer for other resources at your workplace. Visit the EEOC website for more information about laws protecting you at work, how to file a claim, and other important resources.

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My work has recently had a sexual harassment claim and are now rolling out training but only for the women of the office. Is this not the definition of sexism and discrimination? They claim that the harassment training has to be gender specific. No training for the men has been scheduled. I have worked many other places that never had gender specific training. Everyone went through the same training.

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Related Community Discussions
Am I Overreacting?

I work in a very small firm (12 people). Most of us are sharing offices because space is limited. We recently bought a much larger company (60 employees) and the work environment is rapidly changing. I'm the office manager, so a lot of the changes are being coordinated by me, my boss, and the office manager of the other company. A three-way call recently required privacy that our shared office space would not allow for. I ended up in the passenger seat of my boss' pickup while he phoned the other office manager. After the phone call, I briefly mentioned that working with the new manager would be a difficult change. My boss proceeded to tell me that the new manager wouldn't have had the courage to have a phone call in his truck, but it was okay for us, because nothing would ever happen between the two of us because I'm not my boss' 'type.' He told me that he wasn't interested in dating 'little kids.' I'm HAPPILY MARRIED and almost 30. This is the first time in two years of working for him that anything like this has ever come up. Should I be concerned?

Can your work make only females take sexual harassment training?

My work has recently had a sexual harassment claim and are now rolling out training but only for the women of the office. Is this not the definition of sexism and discrimination? They claim that the harassment training has to be gender specific. No training for the men has been scheduled. I have worked many other places that never had gender specific training. Everyone went through the same training.

A male peer keeps interrupting me in meetings. It's driving

A male peer keeps interrupting me in meetings. It's driving me crazy. Should I say something to him?

I think I'm being mommy-tracked at work and it's incredibly

I think I'm being mommy-tracked at work and it's incredibly frustrating. I'm two months back from maternity leave and putting in the same hours as I used to but I'm getting these subtle signs that I'm not taken as seriously -- ranging from not being asked about wanting to spearhead things to the stink eye when I walk out the door (at the same time I roughly used to leave the office). What should I do?